What the critics say
Written by...
Photos by...
Russian Gifts
Russian Art
Russian Photos
Russian Collectibles


Performing Arts

48 Hours in St Petersburg
A Taste of The Old Capital
by Jeremy Noble
Photos by Emil Kan
Valentin Baranovsky
Natasha Razina

St Isaac's Cathedral, St Petersburg

I take the express train at 6.28 every Friday evening from Moscow to St Petersburg.

The train is almost always full, but I notice that there are very few foreigners. It could be that the weather is bad, and people are waiting for spring, but I asked around, and it looks as if not so many people know how quick and easy it is on the train to get to the 'Second Capital.' The weekend break abroad is an established part of many people's holiday habits - take a cheap deal to a city that you like the sound of. Well, if you live in Moscow, then St Petersburg is ideal for that weekend away.

You can fly from Moscow to St Petersburg, but given the traffic you might have to leave your office at lunchtime to be sure of making the flight. With the train you can work a good part of Friday, and still be in St Petersburg at 11 - the journey time is less than five hours. There are overnight trains also, lots of them; but I personally never sleep well on them, and I hate that unwashed, washed out feeling you get standing on the platform at 7am, with your suitcase, looking for a taxi.

This is a very personal account of St Petersburg, the city that I have lived in for many years. It is a tour of what I think you might want to see in one weekend, making reference only to what I know and like, with no reference to any books. You will no doubt take a guide book with you, and perhaps you will know in advance exactly what you want to see; but there is a limit to how much you can take in on one Saturday and a part of Sunday, so this is just a taste of what you can do.

Writing desk of Fyodor Dostoevsky

You can go on the spur of the moment, and there will be more than enough to do during the day, and on the Saturday night, but it makes sense to plan your trip to coincide with something that you really want to see at for example the Mariinsky Theatre, the Jazz Club or the Philharmonia.

Friday Night

Within moments of driving away from the station, you are on Nevsky Prospect, and immediately you notice the difference between the two cities - St Petersburg is so symmetrical, Moscow is anything but.

Once you have checked in, and if you have the energy, there are some late-night places to go, for a drink and some music. I like Cafe Club Che where the crowd is not too fashionable. I like the old Jazz Club which plays only the most traditional jazz; perhaps that's why it now has such strong competition from the JFC Jazz Club which offers a much more up-todate evening. If you really have the will to go dancing there are plenty of nightclubs.

Saturday Morning

The best hotels in the city are all in the centre, and almost everything that I am suggesting you do is within walking distance of where you might be staying, or a short taxi ride away. It makes sense I think to walk in the morning when the sun is out (one hopes), and visit a museum in the afternoon.

The Summer Garden, St Petersburg

The Nevsky Prospect is the heart of the city, and it is where everybody walks. If you start at the Admiralty and walk down, by the time you think it's time for coffee you will be close to the Apricosov cafe, one of my favourites, because the coffee is excellent, the hot chocolate is real, and the eastern interiors are original; they date from 1905, and if your knowledge of Russian history is up to scratch, then you might think that there was something strange about putting in such a decor when Russia was at war with Japan. You might say that the cafe, in its small way, marks the beginning of the end of the Romanovs.

If the image of St Petersburg that you have in your mind has been formed by reading too much Dostoevsky, then you can see how he lived if you visit his museum apartment. But this very comfortable bourgeois apartment gives a misleading impression of what Dostoevsky was like. He moved 28 times in the years he was living in St Petersburg (leaving out the back door as the landlord came in through the front) and this is his last apartment, when he was a happily-married man.

The central Kuznechny Food Market by the way is opposite, and it's worth a quick detour, because you can pick up wonderful fresh honey and herbs, and taste all of the different types of sour cream and cheese.

Dostoevsky set Crime and Punishment in St Petersburg, and he knew the underside of life in the city at first hand - he once spent a couple of days in a debtors' prison across the square from the Sennaya Ploshchad metro station - put there by his publisher, for missing a deadline. Take a copy of the novel with you, for just west of the square is the apartment where he wrote it; Raskolnikov's victim, the old woman, lived on Griboyedov Canal 104; you can walk into the stairway outside the apartment, and read a couple of chapters in homage.

For a completely different experience of Russian literature you could pay a visit to the apartment on Moika Embankment where Alexander Pushkin lived (it is only a few minutes from the Hermitage). He is Russia's national poet, but his work doesn't translate well, and he is unfortunately more famous for how he died (in a duel). But I think that he is a giant, and as a writer myself I always take comfort looking at all of the unsold books, and hearing the tour guide say that he was always in debt and behind with the rent.

State Hermitage Museum (Winter Palace)

Pushkin lived in one of the most beautiful parts of the city, and there is much to see; almost directly opposite is the building where Anatoly Sobchak lived, first mayor of St Petersburg, one of whose assistants was one Vladimir Putin. Also, if I remember rightly, this is also where Mikhail Baryshnikov lived, in an apartment given to him by the Kirov Ballet.

If you are looking for aristocratic St Petersburg, then there is no better place to walk than along the English Embankment. It was in a mansion on the English Embankment that Natasha Rostova went to her first ball, in War and Peace. This was once the most fashionable street in all of St Petersburg, land here was given by successive tsars and tsarinas to favoured subjects; they built only palaces, lining the river Neva, and you can go inside a few of them. You will probably start your walk at the Senate (although the postal numbering starts at the other end). Helpfully, all of the buildings now have plaques with the details of who built them and who lived in them. Here are a few of the buildings I know you can look at: the Rumyantsev Mansion is being restored, the exhibitions are nothing to write home about, but I remember walking in off the street years ago and marvelling at the wooden panelling in the library; you don't have to get married to go inside the House of Weddings, and it is worth a look inside because it is in such good repair.

If you like second-hand bookshops (the best places for buying coffee-table books - much cheaper than the souvenir places) then look out for a book titled To the Piers of the English Embankment, which gives a detailed description of each and every building on the English Embankment.

For Lunch

This is a very personal selection, nothing to do with price or reputation; nothing fancy, just interesting.

Borey Art Gallery Cafe
58, Liteiny Prospect
Tel.: 273-36-93
This is for me the most bohemian cafe in all of St Petersburg. The Borey has for many years been hosting exhibitions of some of the best and most exciting artists in the city. There is a tiny cafe on the left as you walk in, through the swing doors. Don't be shy, you will be very welcome. There isn't much on the menu, it changes daily, and you really will be at the very centre of what makes Petersburg so exciting.

Crocodile Whiskey Bar
18, Galernaya
Tel.: (812) 314 9437
You don't have to like whiskey to enjoy the Crocodile; it is one of the best rest-stops in the city, the food is good, and the decor is very individual.

Nikolsky Cafe
7, Kryukov Canal
Tel.: (812) 113 8532
There are only a few tables; the food is Russian home cooking.

The Georgian Cafe without a name (really); this is in Apraksin Dvor, the market area of the city, off Sadovaya Street. To find it, go through the narrow main entrance into Apraksin, and it is about 50 metres up on your left. You will recognize it by the large covered porchway. The food is Caucasian, with wonderful shashlik, and braised goat.

Saturday Afternoon

Portrait of Count Felix Sumarokov-Elston (later Prince Felix Yusupov) by Valentin Serov, 1903. The State Russian Museum, St Petersburg.

When it comes to museums the Hermitage would rank I am sure at the top of people's list, but if you are brave enough to suffer the cries of disbelief and amazement from your friends that you went to St Petersburg and didn't go inside the Winter Palace, I would suggest you go instead first to the Summer Palace of Peter the Great, and then walk the short distance to the State Russian Museum (which says much more about Russia than the Hermitage). But if you are going to visit St Petersburg's number one tourist attraction, my advice is not to do too much - the Hermitage is huge, there is too much to see in a week, let alone an afternoon, so limit yourself to what you know you like, or where the Hermitage is at its best - Egyptian, the Renaissance, the Impressionists, Dutch landscapes.

Peter's Summer Palace is in the grounds of the Summer Garden, and these are worth walking around; when they were originally laid out they were in the French style, with ornamental ponds. As the power of France faded, and England took its place, so the fashion in gardens changed; the flower beds were rooted up, and the informal style of English country house parks was put in.

Theatre, Yusupov Palace

Part of what this weekend in St Petersburg is about, how I see the city, is this rise and fall of styles, in architecture, art, music, everything that makes St Petersburg the fascinating city that it is. St Petersburg is not an old city, only three hundred years old, and it was designed to a plan; but the plans changed according to who was sitting on the throne, and who had been invited to build the latest imperial residence, theatre, or avenue.

We think perhaps that after Catherine the Great it was downhill all the way for Russia; that somehow she is the apogee of imperial genius, all that building and her mania for art. There is something in this theory, but if you look for example at what her poor, mad, unfortunate son Paul I left behind - the Mikhailovsky Palace, Pavlovsk - better to say perhaps that after Catherine Russia was ruled by dictatorial amateurs who muddled along as best they could, and yet had the good fortune to employ an army of gifted architects, painters and musicians.

Back to Peter the Great, who founded the city; this is why I always recommend to my own guests that they start looking at the city in chronological order - Peter's Summer Palace, the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Menshikov Palace. Peter might have been a monster, but he had simple good taste, very Dutch, very German.

Yusupov Palace

If there is one palace that you have to see, to have an idea as to the unimaginable wealth that was imperial St Petersburg, the Yusupov Palace is the one. Prince Felix Yusupov, the last occupant, is remembered for his murder of Rasputin, and there is a macabre reconstruction with wax models of the evening's grisly details. But for me what is important about the Yusupov is the elegant conflation of styles that mixes East and West, to create a rich, some might say over-decorated style that is St Petersburg.

Saturday Evening

What you do on your Saturday evening will be determined by what you like - classical music, ballet, opera, jazz, a quiet dinner for two. If you go to the Mariinsky Theatre, then leave yourself plenty of time before curtain up so that you can look inside the St Nicholas

Alexander Pushkin, self-portrait

Cathedral, close by - and for me the most beautiful church in the city. If you time it right you might catch the service.

Everybody went to the Mariinsky Theatre, and they still do. The atmosphere hasn't changed so much from the description given by Pushkin in Eugene Onegin:

Onegin hastens to the theatre,
Where everyone, breathing freedom's air,
Prepares to clap an entrechat,
To hiss a Phaedrus, boo a Queen,
To shout for Moina, (only for one thing,
To make his own voice heard in the din).

Prince Igor, Kirov Opera

The existing Mariinsky is to undergo a complete refurbishment in 2006. If you have time, you might like to take a walk behind the theatre to look at the site where the new ultra-modern Mariinsky Theatre is to be built. This is a quiet area of town at the moment, but once the refurbished old Mariinsky Theatre, and the new Mariinsky, are both open to lovers of Russian culture, no doubt St Petersburg's 'Theatre District' will become as fashionable as the Bastille area became after the building of the new Paris Opera.

If there's ballet on at the Mariinsky, and you're an opera buff, then I recommend you see what's on at the St Petersburg Chamber Opera which performs in a very beautiful theatre just behind the English Embankment. Before the revolution of 1917 the mansion was the home of Baron Sergei von Derviz, a professional pianist and patron of the performing arts who regularly hosted concerts and shows.

Khovanshchina, Kirov Opera

If you have been to the Yusupov Palace in the afternoon, check to see what's on in the theatre there; it has an exquisite performing space, and before the 1917 Revolution Prince Yusupov invited a galaxy of stars to entertain him and his society guests - the performers included Anna Pavlova, Franz Lizst and Fyodor Chaliapin. The programme today varies, and during the winter season the Yusupov also has masquerade balls which are well worth the trip from Moscow.

Sunday Morning

I would take a trip out to one of the imperial palaces outside of St Petersburg. If you go out of season there are no lines and it won't feel too crowded in the parks. The choice is a difficult one to make - Pavlovsk, Oranienbaum, Gatchina, Peterhof, Tsarskoe Selo. The latter would be my choice because it offers two very different images of imperial Russia - the high, and the low, namely, the tourist attraction that is the Catherine Palace, and the shunned, unloved Alexander Palace.

Again, you might be horrified if I say that I think that you can miss 'doing' the Catherine Palace (well, at least not go inside). Perhaps you have a desire to see the restored Amber Room (no comment), and all that gilded furniture; but if you want to experience what I think really says something about Russia, please walk the very short distance to the palace built by Catherine the Great for her beloved grandson. Buy a ticket, and prepare to be upset.

Nicholas II, 1903

You might think that there isn't more to say about Nicholas and Alexandra, the story is so well known; but I disagree, and I think that if you visit the Alexander Palace you will see what I mean. The last Tsar and his family lived here for twenty-two years, and I recommend that you take with you, or read beforehand (on the train), Robert Massie's Nicholas and Alexandra, specifically the chapters that describe the fairytale world that was Tsarskoe Selo. I will leave you to experience for yourselves the sense of loss that exists in every empty room. Why empty? To understand the reasons why Russia has ignored, vandalized and stripped the Alexander Palace is to come close to understanding what Russia is about.

My last suggestion of the weekend is for you to stand in the Semi-Circular Room, the room where Nicholas Romanov and his family waited with their suitcases, on the night of August 13th 1917, for the cars that would take them to the train, to Tobolsk and beyond. If you have Massie's book with you, he describes the end of the Romanov dynasty, with feeling.

It will be time for you to be thinking also about your journey home. On the train back I hope that you will be planning your return trip, thinking about all of the places that you didn't have time to see, like the Museum of Musical Instruments, formerly the home of the Sheremetevs, or the Museum of Political History, formerly the home of Mathilde Kschessinskaya, mistress of Tsarevitch Nicholas, later Nicholas II :
Have a good weekend.

© 2005 Jeremy Noble